By David Skolnick
The contentious race for attorney general pits incumbent Mike DeWine, a Republican, against David Pepper, his Democratic challenger.
Pepper, a former Hamilton County commissioner and Cincinnati city councilman, accuses DeWine of establishing a “pay-to-play” environment in the attorney general’s office in which those who contribute to the incumbent’s campaign receive lucrative outside legal counsel contracts for tax and debt collections.
“If this office is going to do the job on cracking down on corruption and pay-to-play at all levels in Ohio, this office has to be itself above reproach when it comes to those issues,” Pepper, a failed 2010 candidate for state auditor, said about the attorney general. “This office I think in the last three years has created a system of pay-to-play and an operation of pay-to-play like no other in the state of Ohio.”
DeWine — a former Greene County prosecutor, state senator, U.S. House member, lieutenant governor and U.S. senator who is finishing his first term as attorney general — said, “People have said a lot of things about me over the years. No one ever called me corrupt, so I’m offended by it very much.”
Pepper accused DeWine of accepting a couple of million dollars from “the very contractors he gives hundreds of millions of dollars of work to.”
In response, DeWine said, “There is no pay-to-play in our office. Everything is public. There’s no secrets here. The contributions we received are all publicized and reported. ... We select special counsel in the attorney general’s office on the basis of who can do the best job.”
Pepper said DeWine awarded a debt-collection contract to CELCO two days after the Hudson-based company incorporated. The company was founded by a DeWine friend and donor.
“If a rigged bid like this showed up out of the Valley somewhere and you could track it back to a donor [giving] a contribution, I believe you’d be concerned about it. I believe the attorney general should be concerned about it,” Pepper said.
DeWine said the company founder, Peter Spitalieri, has expertise in collections though CELCO’s parent company PASCO, and acknowledged meeting with Spitalieri and recommending CELCO be hired to his staff.
While the “buck stops with the attorney general on everything,” that decision is made by AG employees “way, way below me.”
DeWine said, “Nobody gets special treatment” in hiring special counsel, and “there’s no relationship between” contributions and hiring outside attorneys.
During the first three years of DeWine’s term as attorney general, the office collected a record $1.7 billion.
“Our collections have been a phenomenal success,” he said.
Pepper pointed out that collections dropped the past two years.
Polls show DeWine with a comfortable lead with less than a month before the Nov. 4 general election.
DeWine provided a lengthy list of his office’s accomplishments during his first term, including reducing the turnaround time on DNA testing from 125 days to 23 days — in one day in emergencies — as well as improving efficiency at the state crime lab and processing about 8,000 old rape kits “that have sat on shelves for decades” in police departments throughout the state with more than 200 people indicted on rape charges as a result.
The AG’s office also has created a heroin task force, worked to combat human trafficking, created a Crimes Against Children Initiative, and provided $75 million from a national mortgage settlement to demolish vacant and blighted houses statewide.
DeWine also cracked down on public corruption, and his office, along with the Cuyahoga County prosecutor, is prosecuting Youngstown Mayor John A. McNally, Mahoning County Auditor Michael V. Sciortino and Atty. Martin Yavorcik, who were indicted in May on charges related to the Oakhill Renaissance Place criminal conspiracy case.
Pepper said he gives credit to DeWine for some of his office’s accomplishments, but said the incumbent hasn’t been aggressive enough in addressing heroin use, waiting until recently to create a task force. Pepper said, if elected, he will focus on improving access to high-quality treatment and prevention services, and cracking down on dealers.